What on earth are minimal pairs?
Minimal pairs are words that vary by only a single sound, usually sounds that often confuse students such as the “th” and “s” in “think” and “sink”, as brilliantly illustrated by this ad:
The underlying assumption here is that minimal pairs matter because the wrong phoneme may cause potentially disastrous communication breakdowns. Fair enough.
In real life, though, it’s hard to envisage a scenario where the poor guard’s professional schemata wouldn’t have come to his aid and enabled him to infer that the submarine was going down. Though the wrong phoneme can obviously convey the wrong message, I don’t think this is what happens most of the time. Background knowledge, strategic competence and top-down processing will often (though not always, I insist) make up for some of our students’ linguistic shortcomings and take care of intelligibility, as I argued in last week’s post. So what does that mean in practice?
It means, I think, that as far as language learning goals are concerned, mere intelligibility is perhaps not all that’s it’s often hyped up to be and that minimally accurate minimal pairs do play a part in the overall success of the interaction.
In my recent trip to Buenos Aires, my friends and I were on a 2-hour bus-then-ferry ride that we can still recall, for all but the right reasons. Our guide was a nice lady in her early 30s, who obviously knew Brazil better than most and spoke fairly fluent and accurate Portuguese. We understood every single word she said, despite her /b/s, /v/s and /dz/s, which were all over the place.
Whenever she said “Well, folks…” in Portuguese, (which, trust me, she must have done more than 30 times), this is what we heard:
“Von, xente…” (Bom, gente…)
At first, her minimal pairs unawareness went unnoticed, of course, since we were far more interested in enjoying the tour and, really, learning as much from the woman as we possibly could. Twenty minutes into the bus ride, we still thought the whole b/v/x mix-up was kind of cute. One hour later, her sounds became a bit tiring. Towards the end of the ferry ride, we were no longer paying attention to what she had to say, since all we could hear were the wrong minimal pairs.
In other words, a speaker of Portuguese who was 100% intelligible eventually became somewhat annoying because of poor pronunciation.
I’m not trying to generalize beyond this anecdote, of course, and claim that misused minimal pairs will always annoy the listener. But it did happen to me and my three friends (two of whom have NOTHING to do with ELT) and it might happen to our students when they’re interacting with native speakers. So, what I’m tentatively arguing is that there’s more to good pronunciation than mere intelligibility.
So, next time you hear “I fink” (rather than “I think”), for example, and hesitate to correct it because, well, “the student made herself understood”, remember that intelligibility sometimes tells only half the story.
Thanks for reading.
If you enjoyed this post, try this one.